Ursus Horribilis In Extremis

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Many Montana ranchers nowadays might take sharp issue with that assessment, insisting that the grizzly is good for worse than nothing because, after sleeping all winter, it spends its summer eating cows. The introduction of livestock to grizzly country, beginning on a large scale in the 1860’s, drastically accelerated the process of bear extirpation west of the Dakotas. With the bison going, going, gone, the great bear naturally turned to the next most plentiful and vulnerable ungulates to supplement its predominantly herbaceous diet. With prized longhorns and heifers and sheep becoming piles of fragmented bone overnight, the rancher just as naturally turned to cash bounties, poisons, posses, and set guns. And more tall grizzly tales: of “Old Mose,” the Colorado stock-killer that reportedly did in five of its human pursuers; of “Two Toes” (the other three having been lost to a trap in Montana); and of “Old Ephraim,” the elusive sheep-eater of northern Utah, pursued for thirteen years and finally shot by Frank Clark on August 22,1923, in the Cache National Forest. In memory of Old Eph, the Cache County Boy Scouts later erected a monument. The inscription informs the mourner that Old Eph weighed 1,100 pounds and that his skull now resides in the custody of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

On August 1, 1975, under provisions of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the grizzly bear in the coterminus United States a threatened species. One immediate effect of the ruling was the reinforcement of Montana’s two-year-old moratorium on grizzly hunting. (Idaho has enforced a closed season since 1946; Wyoming, since 1972.) The federal-state regulations further stipulate that no more than twenty-five grizzlies may be “removed” from the Montana grizzly population in any one year-not only through sport hunting but for whatever reason, including the protection of persons and property and through accidental road-kills.

In recent years, however, sport hunting has not figured as prominently as it once did in the demise of the bear. From 1967 to 1975, the so-called “harvest” by trophy hunters in Montana averaged only nineteen bears a year. No doubt a heavier toll has been taken illegally by jack-lighting poachers and proxy hunters with assignments from trophy collectors in Texas, New York, and California, who reportedly have paid $3,000 for an adult grizzly hide, $500 for a full set of claws. Bear bladders are likewise in demand. At the time of the threatened species ruling in 1975, a West Coast clearinghouse was circulating handbills throughout western Montana, offering $50 per bladder, to be used “for a part of a new medicine.” In fact, this new medicine was to be marketed in Japan as an aphrodisiac. “Please do not kill the bears for this reason only,” the flyer piously suggested. “We would like to keep this business for a long time to come.”

Wildlife officials remain deeply concerned about livestock grazing in the national forests of grizzly country. The real and imagined defense of cows and sheep still probably accounts for more dead bears than all other causes combined, excluding natural mortality. The Targhee National Forest, west of Yellowstone Park in Idaho, is prime sheep country. Stockmen there kill at least half a dozen grizzlies every year. East of Glacier National Park on the Blackfoot Reservation, cows help hold that tribe’s fragile economy together. Not surprisingly, grizzlies are vermin in the eyes of the Blackfoot ranchers.

Logging operations also take a toll. Apologists claim that clearcutting actually improves habitat, inasmuch as grizzlies prefer open country. While there may be some truth to this, it is doubtful grizzlies thrive when clear-cuts on high slopes result in soil slippage and erosion, as they most always do. Still, the real problem is not the manner of cutting trees, but of getting to them. Logging roads lace the forest lands of grizzly country. Montana Hunting Area 110, a section of the Flathead National Forest just west of Glacier Park and barely half its size, contains an estimated six hundred miles of logging roads, twice the aggregate of paved and unpaved roads within the park itself. Such roads provide easy access to hunters, licensed and unlicensed.

 

Then there is the problem of mineral and recreational development. Near Glacier Park, more than 200,000 acres of the Flathead Forest are under oil and gas lease applications. East of Yellowstone, the Sunlight and Needles Creek watersheds have been proposed for copper mining. West of Yellowstone, at Hebgen Lake, promoters are hustling plans for a huge ski resort and condominium complex. And north of Yellowstone is the burgeoning residential development at Big Sky. “You know what they’re doing to us?” said a young ranger I met at Yellowstone Park. “They’re closing the circle. One of these days the park will be all that’s left. But it won’t be enough for the grizzly.”